The consequences of the fallout from the Grenfell Tower disaster is likely to put considerable pressure on the resources within the industry to cope with the extensive rework programmes needed to remedy the growing numbers of unsafe buildings. Amongst the long term damage to the perception and reputation of the construction industry it can be hard to find a positive way forward. There are things that everyone can do to help demonstrate our industry is one that cares.
The recent report by the National Crime Agency on the number of people exploited under modern slavery is far more widespread than the official statistics show and is happening in every town and city. This is a severe wake up call. The NCA said there were tens of thousands of victims making the previous official estimate of 10-13,000 victims look like the tip of the iceberg.
It is pretty clear that with trafficking so widespread most of us are likely to come into contact with victims every day.
The key sectors for slavery are food processing, agriculture, fishing, domestic and care workers, car washes and construction, or as one BBC report put it ‘building sites to brothels’. The victims are hidden in plain sight and working in everyday jobs.
Our industry is particularly vulnerable to being taken advantage of by the criminal gangs responsible for the trafficking. Our complex supply chains, the multiple levels of subcontracting, and the sometimes lack of direct control of people, create an environment prone for exploitation. Add in labour shortages and the need to get things done, plus potential shortcuts in procurement processes and the industry looks even more susceptible. There have been many documented cases of slavery in the industry as well as a few undocumented ones as well. So we know it does happen and is happening.
The simplest way of tackling modern slavery is to cut off the money, so that it does not pay. Think about the hand car washes, the nail bars and the gang of usually foreign labourers. Because slavery is about control, the paradox is that many of the victims are from Eastern Europe and have the right to come here and work , but the gangs get hold of them and they are trapped with nowhere to run.
So as a construction industry we can and should take the issue of modern slavery seriously and be vigilant, reporting suspected exploitation when we feel it is happening. The CIOB along with Stronger Together have made a short video telling one such story from our industry, which is 10 minutes well spent.
It is impossible to remedy the horrors of Grenfell and no amount of ‘suits’ sounding very earnest will restore confidence in the short or medium term. But we can make the construction industry a hostile place for traffickers to operate in the short term - it just needs the will.
It would be ironic if the labour force helping the cladding victims contained the victims of traffickers.
If you have any concerns or information that may help victims, call The Modern Slavery Helpline on 08000 121 700.